You don’t have to trek as far south as Big Bend National Park to be seduced by the Texas desert high plains. The towns of Fort Davis, Marfa and Alpine offer a rich diversity of history, science, mystery and, most unlikely, high art.
Exit Interstate Highway 10 at Balmorhea and pick up Texas Highway 17.
Texas Highway 17 delivers visitors from Balmorhea to Fort Davis some 32 miles south. Marfa is just 21 miles farther south on 17. From Marfa east to Alpine on U.S. Highway 67/90 is 26 miles. A return to complete the triangle from Alpine to Fort Davis on Texas Highway 118 is another 26 miles.
Situated because of the remoteness of the area, the McDonald Observatory perches atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes just northwest of Fort Davis. The facility attracts astronomers from across the globe. They do most of their work at night, leaving plenty of opportunities for tours in the daytime. There are also night star parties at the visitor headquarters. Back in town, the restored barracks at the Fort Davis National Historic Siteare a must-see for anyone interested in the Texas frontier era, buffalo soldiers and the Civil War. The camping is great at Davis Mountains State Park. Sunset draws locals and sightseers alike to take the 5-mile scenic road, which culminates in a spectacular view of the plains stretching toward Marfa. Those who don’t wish to camp have delightful options, from the restored Indian Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, at the state park, to Hotel Limpia on the main drag of Fort Davis. Limpia, meaning “clean” in Spanish, refers to a nearby creek. The historic hotel has much more to offer than cleanliness, including a restaurant, gift shop and bookstore.
The two most important modern influences on Marfa have been the filming of the movie “Giant” in 1955 and the fact that renowned minimalist artist Donald Judd chose to live and work here. When “Giant” was in production, actors Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson stayed at theHotel Paisano in downtown Marfa. The Paisano’s restaurant is named after James Dean’s character in the film, and there’s a continuous loop of “Giant” playing in a leathery lounge area. Then came Judd from New York City, making Marfa into one of the great world art hangouts. He took warehouses and part of an abandoned fort to establish the Chinati Foundation. Art aficionados can arrange tours of the facility, which includes some of the most important collections of modern art in the world. International visitors are particularly drawn to the yearly Open House, usually held in October. You will also find renowned poets reading their work at the Marfa Book Company, art gallery and coffee bar. Lannin Poetry fellows are awarded accommodations and a stip-end for quiet work time in Marfa. Then there are the mysterious Marfa lights, most commonly explained as an atmos-pheric mirage. The scholarly Handbook of Texas says, “They move about, split apart, melt together, disappear, and reappear.”
Hotel Paisano, 1-866-729-3669, www.hotelpaisano.com
The Chinati Foundation, (432) 729-4362, www.chinati.org
Marfa Book Company, (432) 729-3906, www.marfabookco.com
Thirty minutes east is Alpine, the most populous of our trio of cities, with more than 6,000 residents. It is home to Sul Ross State University where visitors should check out the Museum of the Big Bend on the main campus. The museum has been collecting and exhibiting artifacts of the sprawling Big Bend region for more than 70 years. The Reata Restaurant, opened in 1995 and named after the ranch in “Giant,” offers gourmet cowboy cuisine such as pan-seared tenderloin in port wine sauce and double pork chops stuffed with roasted pears.
Museum of the Big Bend, (432) 837-8143, www.sulross.edu
Reata Restaurant, (432) 837-9232, www.reata.net
Kaye Northcott is editor of Texas Co-op Power.